The new role of today’s front page as a third draft of history

I usually make an effort to read the newspaper’s top headline by glancing at a corner box that I drive past on my way to work each morning as an intern at Poynter’s Tampa Bay Times. I’m rarely able to satisfy my curiosity until I get a copy in my hands — it’s just too hard to read the headline from my car. But that wasn’t the case last Friday. I could have made out the big, bold headline from across the street, and it didn’t really matter that I was able to read it, anyway. I already knew what it would say.

The Supreme Court’s ruling on the Affordable Care Act came before anyone even felt pangs of hunger for lunch on Thursday, yet newspapers shouted the news over the next day’s breakfast as if the intervening meals and news cycles hadn’t taken place.

So why then did we journalists crowd our front pages with news that dropped almost a full day before the first daily papers dropped on doorsteps? And why did our headlines seem to presume that most readers hadn’t been anywhere near Twitter, television or the radio at all during the preceding 20 to 24 hours?

A quick sampling of what I mean:

  • On its front page, the New York Times went with a courtly six-column, two deck headline presiding over four health care stories that draped like robes around images of the nine justices and constituted the entirety of the A1 content.
  • USA Today made room for some gargantuan text by shifting its customary left rail down to the bottom of the page, above a nifty little ad.
  • And the Chicago Tribune — a regional paper — gave the decision perhaps the most royal treatment of all, with a two-deck, all-caps main headline and two six-column dropheads. It managed to squeeze in a few stories below the Supreme Court coverage, though, as did the Los Angeles Times and the Washington Post.
A sampling of papers, shown above.

That’s a lot of real estate to devote to display type and run-of-the-mill photos for a story that, by this point, deserved second-day (or even third-day) treatment.

There’s no question that health care should have been the lead story, and I’ll concede that a few stragglers may not have found out about the decision until morning. (Incidentally, 45 percent still don’t know what the Supreme Court decided, and it seems unlikely that there’s anything a newspaper’s front-page layout could have done to reach them.) But a big majority of news consumers likely already knew.

Why newspaper front pages screamed old news

Here’s my hunch: We went through the motions because it’s how we’ve always done it—and because it makes us feel important.

Newspapers have often become a part of history in the course of covering it. “Dewey Defeats Truman” notwithstanding, some front pages are historic relics belonging in museums. When we see a famous front page, we feel a sense of wonder to be reading the same words that shocked or dismayed or struck fear in the hearts of readers learning of a bombing or an assassination or a sinking of a great ship. And we as journalists feel a sense of camaraderie with those who scrambled heroically to put those papers together for the good of society, so that people would know what happened.

Today — perhaps subconsciously — we want our headlines, too, to end up in glass cases, or to line the halls of a newspaper building alongside other iconic pages from December 8, 1941 or November 23, 1963. Website screenshots and Storifys just aren’t the same.

But newspapers don’t write the first drafts of history any more.

Marcel Pacatte, a good friend and professor at Medill, worked at the Milwaukee Journal when the Gulf War began. Someone at the paper, he recalls, was tasked with measuring the point size of previous “WAR” headlines from 1916 and 1941. The goal: to ensure that the next day’s font size wouldn’t exceed what was used 50 and 75 years before. Did that exercise reflect reverence for our forebears, or did it reflect a failure to acknowledge how, even then, news habits had shifted far away from the newspaper-first mentality when it came to the biggest of stories?

While today’s physical newspapers rarely have the power to break big news, they do have the power to provide context for a story that broke the previous day. And to most newspapers’ credit, a good portion of the front-page coverage was devoted to local fallout and analysis of a very complicated decision.

Still, what struck me most on Friday was how uninterested I was in reading my favorite newspaper, The New York Times. While I can’t read as many newspapers as Michael Bloomberg and Arianna Huffington do, I like to think I read more than most, particularly among those in my age group (18-25). That said, it still takes some prodding to get me deep inside some of the sections.

The Times is unique in its ability to captivate me with nearly every story that graces its front page. The headlines are poetry, written with such finesse that they delicately trail off in a way that gently drops me into the lead paragraph below. And when I get to the jump, it’s like being a kid in an inflatable castle: How could I not?

But that thrill of discovery — of an international event that was sadly absent from my previous day’s Twitter feed or of a below-the-fold culture trend that I never would have guessed existed — was gone last Friday. Nothing on the front page made me feel like I had to know more.

The A1 goal in newsrooms seems to change, then, on days like this. The goal isn’t to present a mix of stories that will entertain, surprise and inform — and that will lure readers inside and tell them something they didn’t know they wanted or needed to know. Instead, the goal for A1 seems to be to create a towering monument to a momentous event — something readers and editors will think twice about throwing away.

The great irony, then, is that the louder a headline shouts, the less likely I am to read the story, because a story commanding a 120-point headline likely commanded my attention yesterday, when it was fresh. That makes some newspapers on a day like last Friday’s little more than kitsch, aged without the yellowing or brittleness, naked despite the adornments in all-caps.

But then again, maybe that’s what readers want. Or maybe it’s just what they expect. History aficionados can tuck a historic paper away as a keepsake and resume their regular reading habits the next day.

For my part, I still haven’t decided whether I’ll hold on to my copy of the newspaper that looked so significant but was left so atypically undisturbed.

Sam Kirkland (@samkirkla) is a Dow Jones News Fund copy desk intern for the Tampa Bay Times, a freelance page designer for Chicago Sun-Times Media and a master’s student at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism.

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  • http://profiles.google.com/wenalway Robert Knilands

    No need to be a finger-wagger, Barbara.

  • Barbara Selvin

    No need to be snide, Robert. 

  • Barbara Selvin

    No need to be snide, Robert. 

  • poppy coq

    You’ve summed it up perfectly.

    It was possible to get a preview of the decision online or on the radio, then a breaking news report via a google alert or on a newspaper site, and then a re-cap in the printed paper or on Morning Edition.

    You’re question, as to what else would someone put on the morning paper’s front page, is spot on.

    We are all multi-platform.

  • poppy coq

    Are you at all troubled by the fact that you blogged about this story a week after the headlines appeared?

  • http://www.thepomoblog.com Terry Heaton

    This is excellent, Sam, and I appreciate it very much. At its very best, what I call “finished product news” can advance a story or offer second-day leads. I think all forms of media must assume — as a starting point — that their readers and viewers already know the “news” of the day.

  • http://profiles.google.com/wenalway Robert Knilands

    The problem is with the idea that dollar-sized pages can somehow project how effectively a newspaper covered an event. Intern’s references to a layout somehow “reaching people” show his reliance on this failed, nonsensical philosophy. Maybe someone at his overpriced university told him he should think this way, and so he does.

    I suspect Intern didn’t read much of the coverage. That’s too bad. If the plan is allowed to stand, then Intern might be affected by it.

  • Anonymous

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  • Anonymous

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  • Anonymous

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  • http://twitter.com/samkirkla Sam Kirkland

    Mr. Morgan: Thanks for reading and responding.

    I agree that it’s a bad idea to downplay a story like this, but I think it’s also bad to overplay it. So let’s give it just the right amount of play. Is an entire page — or three-quarters of a page — the right amount?

    I think your newspaper’s approach to June 29′s front page (via Newseum, PDF: http://webmedia.newseum.org/newseum-multimedia/tfp_archive/2012-06-29/pdf/TN_DNJ.pdf ) is close to the one I’d like to see from the big national dailies. Your headlines didn’t presume that readers knew nothing about the ruling, but you still rightly determined, as I mention in the piece, that it deserved to be the lead story and that your print readers would have unanswered questions.

    My concern was that so many newspapers pretended to be breaking news, as Mr. Lin commented, that was already widely known.

    Yes, let’s be mindful of all platforms. Print is the only platform for some, but we want significant overlap between our print readers and digital readers – that’s why we refer print readers to the Web so frequently and offer online access with print subscriptions. The platforms should work in tandem. Print-only readers are a subset of all print readers, and I don’t think we should target just that subset with our print design and display type. In our effort to be so inclusive of print-only readers, do we ignore the needs of those who would like to enjoy our content in all forms?

    And, of course, when big news like this takes place, that doesn’t put a halt to everything else that matters to the nation or to individual communities. I’m not the first to note Eric Holder’s fortune at becoming the first Cabinet member to be held in contempt of Congress on the same day that the Supreme Court handed down its ruling on health care. Why displace all five stories that would have gone on the front page otherwise? I think you can communicate the importance of a story without displacing everything else that would have been worthy of A1 treatment on that particular day.

  • http://www.facebook.com/MorganCreativeServices Clay Morgan

    I apreciate your viewpoints and have thought long and hard about them.

    My question is this, though:
    After you have served, throughout Thursday, the tens of thousands, or perhaps hundreds of thousands of readers who rely on the newspaper’s website for news, what would YOU do to serve the tens of thousands or (depending on the paper) hundreds of thousands of people who buy a print copy for news?

    I would be curious to see your news budget (serving your digital, mobile and print readers), as well as a mock up of your ideal front page.

    We utilized a combination of local reporting and wire stories for our website on Thursday. We included video and photo galleries. We pushed this content through our social media and email marketing mechanisms. And we provided equally comprehensive coverage for our print readers on Friday morning.

    While many print readers do read online, not all do. We must be aware of the simple fact that our readers are reading through a website, iPad app, mobile phone, and yes, still through print.

    As David Sullivan pointed out, “In the end you do it because it seems irresponsible not to do it, to simply report that something important happened, even though you know that “everyone” already knows that it happened.”

    Also, to downplay something like this – you just look like a darned fool.

  • http://www.facebook.com/david.sullivan.79827803 David Sullivan

    We were having this same conversation before there was a World Wide Web — the example being a plane crash that happens at 10 in the morning and has been all over TV news. Why then did we run “70 Die In Plane Crash” as a streamer? Didn’t everyone know that?

    But how else are we to indicate to our readers “history has been made here”? Even if we ran only analyses and look-forwards, we still would have to have the overarching headline saying “the health-care ruling.” And then you have to say what the health-care ruling was, because, as you said, half the people in America still have no idea what it is. And despite the closing of the news cycle, so many first-day analyses prove to be specious (“Why Roberts Did It” — well, hell, we still really don’t know, do we) or man on the street uniformed (“Hoosiers Have Varying Views on Health Care Ruling”) or pundits-for-hire (“Although I haven’t actually read the ruling, it’s clear to me that it reflects…”)

    In the end you do it because it seems irresponsible not to do it, to simply report that something important happened, even though you know that “everyone” already knows that it happened. But to do otherwise seems artificial — to put yourself before the news.

  • http://www.facebook.com/larryvaughn Larry Vaughn

    It’s an important story. A huge story. Newspapers get more information in front of you, more than TV, twitter, dubious blogs and unqualified commentary.

    Affordable health care, if that is what we end up with, will be a huge change from the extortionist policies of managed health care organizations.

     Sam, have you ever had to visit the emergency room only to be force to sign promises to pay without being told how much you will have to pay, despite asking several times? Have you been told you can’t leave after you decide it will cost you too much, whatever it is?

     Have you ever sat around an ER waiting room for hours only to be sent a bill a month later after treatment that was more than you took home the entire year before? 

    Have you even been charged $400 for a litre of saline solution (salty water), another $400 for the IV thing they stick in your arm, another $400 to stick it in your arm, and another few thousand dollars to rent your tiny portion of the room while you are there? I didn’t think so. Your time may come. Hopefully you have good insurance.

  • http://www.facebook.com/larryvaughn Larry Vaughn

    It’s an important story. A huge story. Newspapers get more information in front of you, more than TV, twitter, dubious blogs and unqualified commentary.

    Affordable health care, if that is what we end up with, will be a huge change from the extortionist policies of managed health care organizations.

     Sam, have you ever had to visit the emergency room only to be force to sign promises to pay without being told how much you will have to pay, despite asking several times? Have you been told you can’t leave after you decide it will cost you too much, whatever it is?

     Have you ever sat around an ER waiting room for hours only to be sent a bill a month later after treatment that was more than you took home the entire year before? 

    Have you even been charged $400 for a litre of saline solution (salty water), another $400 for the IV thing they stick in your arm, another $400 to stick it in your arm, and another few thousand dollars to rent your tiny portion of the room while you are there? I didn’t think so. Your time may come. Hopefully you have good insurance.

  • http://twitter.com/mututemple Mu Lin

    Interesting observation. I tweeted this article but a new heading which may better capture the essence of the article – Why newspapers “break” news that is already widely known? The case of Obamacare.